Music | Bittles’ Magazine: The music column from the end of the world
To claim that Debut by Björk is a classic is somewhat underselling the effect it had on a generation of teens upon its release. The album came out in 1993, a year when the house revolution was in full swing, and bands such as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and Primal Scream had successfully merged baggy beats with funk-strewn guitar grooves. In short, if you were a music fan, it was an unbelievable time to be alive. By JOHN BITTLES
The record was Björk’s first album since leaving The Sugarcubes (like the Sugarbabes, but with better hair), and perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time. Upon release it successfully united foppy-haired indie kids, Smash Hits devoted pop fans and E’d-up ravers into one adoring mass. Not bad for an LP which Björk herself has often cited as not being her best.
Unfortunately her previous work with Melody Maker darlings The Sugarcubes somewhat passed me by, meaning that my first proper introduction to the Icelandic singer’s work was through the sublime Justin Robertson remix of their breakthrough single Birthday. Adding an uplifting house feel to the band’s angular grooves, Björk’s yelp-like vocals seemed to fit perfectly within the confines of the 4/4 beat. Taken from the superb remix album It’s – It, this was the moment when Björk and dance music first began to successfully collide. Some might even claim that it proved to be the inspiration which would help shape Debut.
A year after It’s – It the video for the The Fluke Minimix of Big Time Sensuality became a firm favourite on the ubiquitous MTV. Arty, yet far from pretentious, the clip illustrated perfectly the joy of dancing all by yourself. In the video Björk moved with unbridled delight while balanced on the back of a truck as it travelled through New York. Unselfconscious and sexy as hell, it was the song itself that struck me most; a joyfully ecstatic rush created with a, seemingly, innate knowledge of getting lost within a groove. The couplet „I don’t know my future after this weekend, And I don’t want to“ gives me goosebumps each and every time. Instantly, I was in love!
After playing Big Time Sensuality on repeat for a couple of weeks I decided I needed more. A trip to the record shop ensued where I acquainted myself with Debut (my only disappointment was that it wasn’t available on vinyl at the time). It was created mostly in London together with Nellee Hooper who had previously worked with the likes of Massive Attack and Soul II Soul. It was he who was at least partly responsible for the LP’s glossy house sheen.
The gestation of the album occurred following The Sugarcubes‘ split, when Björk, inspired by UK club culture, began working with Graham Massey of 808 State fame on a variety of songs she had deemed not quite right for her previous band. With some of these dating all the way back to her teenage years, Björk appeared to revel in the creative freedom which being a solo singer afforded. Yet, after meeting and instantly bonding with Nelle Hooper a creative love affair was formed and they went on to produce the vast majority of the album’s tracks as a team.
The resulting LP is a celebration of life, friendship, love and the joys of dancing in a darkened room. Yet, there is also a slight tinge of melancholy present in most of these songs, with Björk singing of being alone on an Aeroplane, or Crying because her beloved isn’t there. In contrast to her most recent album Vulnicura, which deconstructed the ending of a relationship that was cruelly and irreversibly falling apart, Debut celebrated the enduring power of love. The record peaked at number 3 in the UK album charts and hung around for a total of 69 weeks. This was far better than either Björk or her record company, One Little Indian, expected. Critically praised upon release, NME described it as „An album that believes music can be magical and special“ and ranked it as their album of the year.
Lead single Human Behaviour preceded Debut by a month, and reached a very respectable 36 in the UK singles chart. For me though, this is one of the album’s weakest tracks, although it does benefit from a very quirky, and slightly annoying video directed by Michel Gondry of Fell In Love With A Girl and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind fame. The clip further explores the song’s focus on the foibles of human nature from an animal/outsider point of view. Talking about the song later in an interview with The Guardian Björk reflected that with the song „I was referring to my childhood and probably talking about how I felt more comfortable on my own walking outside singing and stuff than hanging out with humans“.
Don’t let this put off though, as from here on in Debut really hits its stride. Crying unlashes a killer Chicago house-style groove, its musical backing working in perfect juxtaposition with the song’s lyrics that reflect the emptiness you feel when your beloved isn’t around. The opening couplet of „I travel all around the city. Go in and out of locomotives, all alone“, may sound simple and naive, but it successfully uses the ‚everyday‘ language of, say, a Philip Larkin. With the lyrics adding a real poignant resonance, the in-your-face house production adds a joyous air to the song, allowing it to soar into the realms of the sublime.
In fact, it is these dance elements which form the beating core of Debut. The aforementioned Crying, in tandem with the booming bass on There’s More To Life Than This, the feel-good disco of Big Time Sensuality and the piano house of Violently Happy herald both a new direction for the singer and add a human element to what could have been faceless house beats. It is in these tunes were Nellee Hooper’s UK club influence is most apparent. Björk’s vocals work in perfect synchronicity with the funky-assed beats to create something which you instantly knew would withstand the ravages of time. In Violently Happy she bellows „I tip-toe down to the shore. Stand by the ocean, Make it roar at me. And I roar back.“ while, in Big Time Sensuality she sings „It takes courage to enjoy it. The hardcore and the gentle. Big time Sensuality“ in a startling demonstration of the joys of life.
Yet, what makes Debut such a special experience is that it is far from just being all about the club bangers. Various songs include strings created by Talvin Singh who later won the Mercury Music Prize for his album OK, while several tracks feature jazz musicians Oliver Lake and Corky Hale. Venus As A Boy is an early example of this, luxuriating in a slow trip hop inspired groove, as Björk sings about Dominic Thrupp, her boyfriend at the time and how he would see everything from a „beauty point of view“. Like Someone In Love meanwhile is a gloriously heartfelt re-imagining of the jazz standard and Come To Me is a warm, sensual jam which suggests someone spending far too much time with the Pussyfoot crowd. The Anchor Song closes the album with such a sense of yearning that it’s hard not to shed a tear.
For me, the bona fide star of the show is the gorgeously rich centrepiece One Day. With a deep yet playful air the song finds the Icelandic artist in startling form. „And the beautifullest fireworks are burning in the sky just for you“ she sings, in a song which is so good it almost hurts your ears. One Day makes a fine accompaniment to the glorious Play Dead, which was added to later presses of the album after its success on The Young Americans soundtracks. Both songs are string laden epics which illustrate just how mesmerising Björk can be when she allows herself to aim big.
An album brimming full of joy, Debut was, thankfully, created before Björk discovered pretension and began releasing albums composed of a series of multimedia concepts, or made up entirely of the sound of her own voice, and is all the better for it. Sometimes we don’t need allusions to Nietzsche, or Derrida, or a literary examination of the human condition. Sometimes, just sometimes, a heartfelt hug from a complete and utter stranger is more than enough. And one of the best things about Debut, is that when you listen to it on a cold and lonely day, this is exactly how it feels. What more do you need?